Gender should be a side issue in debates over social work’s diversity

Diversity in experience and individuality is more important than the diversity that gender can bring to the profession, says Mollie Heywood

Photo: tashatuvango/Fotolia

by Mollie Heywood

Stereotypically labelled as ‘women’s work’, social work is a profession that can impact every single aspect of society in some way or another. Overtly or not, social workers carry a great weight in terms of their ability to promote social justice and, to an extent, implement change in society.

The global definition of social work outlines how its core values are steeped in social justice, development and cohesion and human rights. But there isn’t anything in that definition that confines the profession to being merely ‘women’s work’, which goes hand in hand with numerous negative connotations.

Interesting, then, that social work is labelled as such, and is even depicted as being overrun by women in some circles, notably in an article last month in Professional Social Work which referred to women “reigning” in the profession.

Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, criticised the headline as “astonishing”, and BASW publicly stated the headline and content of the article did not accurately portray his views, nonetheless the debate that this prompted reflected a much-wider, societal concern over gender roles and balance, and one that exists in our profession.

I’m a social work student and, for me, gender doesn’t really come into it. Sure, there’s a heavy gender imbalance in favour of women, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be seen in a negative way. What I’ve found more valuable in my training is the varying past experiences of my course mates, and how we’re a collection of people who share similar values and ethics.


The diversity in experience and individuality is more important than the diversity that gender can bring. Surely it’s more important that there is a workforce that is committed to sticking to the core values and principles of social work than filling in gender quotas?

Equally, different genders can bring different things to different job roles and that’s something that should be celebrated, but exploiting gender stereotypes shouldn’t be the way forward in increasing a workforce, let alone one that has so many core values that would disagree with that.

12% of my MA course are men, while 23% of qualified social workers are men – both small proportions. But I wouldn’t say that they are any more or less valued than anyone else on the course. Everyone brings something completely different and that’s really valuable during the learning process.

Having a diverse workforce means the discussion can’t and shouldn’t be centred on gender alone. Disability, sexuality and ethnicity are all vitally important elements of diversity that can be more relevant to social work than gender can be.

Furthermore, I want to go into a profession that promotes equality and diversity but doesn’t use these things as a negative stereotype.

Using stereotypical male activities to target men has all sorts of issues connected to it, such as how Frontline advertised with the LadBible to try and promote children’s social work to men. If you were trying to attract men from a rugby field, this implicates all sorts of ideas about masculinity that barely exist anymore! And I’m not just saying that as a former women’s rugby player!


The ideas surrounding social work as a gendered profession are actually irrelevant and we should instead be targeting gender stereotypes as a whole. Social work being likened ‘women’s work’, where women reign because it is seen as a caring, child-centred field just highlights the ignorance faced – both in the obvious issue that social work isn’t just about children and that men can be caring as well.

Social work should use the power of social change to promote diversity and challenge stereotypes, rather than use these things as a marketing technique.

Everyone who comes into social work has something different to offer to whoever they work with, and that should be the priority, not whichever gender they identify with.

In my opinion, that’s more important than prioritising the current rhetoric that perpetuates social work as heroism and shaped by gender stereotypes. Surely there are more important things to be getting on with?

Mollie Heywood is a social work student. She tweets @mollieaheywood.

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4 Responses to Gender should be a side issue in debates over social work’s diversity

  1. dk November 14, 2017 at 9:07 pm #

    I really don’t understand this piece; it strikes me as very confused. That characteristics like compassion and work related to children is considered somehow feminine is obviously an unhelpful and harmful construct, not least to the children and families social workers serve who have overwhelmingly suffered at the hands of men. Representation is key to dismantling these constructs; seeing people we consider similar to us doing things sends us the message that we can, perhaps should, do them ourselves. Very traditional conceptualisations of masculinity (such as the article’s LadBible-reading rugby player) could hardly more obviously still exist, and nor be more toxic as ever; look at the news.

    There are, in very real senses, higher contexts and more pressing matters in social work training, practice and recruitment than gender. But that men don’t, in meaningful numbers, do ‘women’s work’ is a massive problem for the profession; not only in employing male workers but in the very issues that come to our front door day in, day out.

  2. HelenSparkles November 14, 2017 at 9:33 pm #

    “The ideas surrounding social work as a gendered profession are actually irrelevant…”

    Like many others I didn’t see the problem with women reigning anyway, but gender is not irrelevant when so few men are in SW, but most senior managers (nationwide) are men.

    The profession doesn’t uphold it’s own set of values. That isn’t irrelevant.

  3. John Popham November 15, 2017 at 8:43 am #

    While I agree with a lot of what you say, Mollie, and in particular about using “typical” male traits to appeal to men, I also think that having more men in social care professions is important for two reasons. One is that a lot of social care (as opposed to social work perhaps) is about intimate care, and a lot of men are not comfortable with women providing these services. The other is, as one of other commenters has indicated, people need role models that are like them. This is why I did this

  4. N November 15, 2017 at 7:45 pm #

    Given that many of the issues we confront as social workers are gendered, it’s incredibly important that we as a profession try not to be. Advertising to “blokey blokes” might seem counter intuitive, but imagine a famous rugby player or boxer being able to articulate social work values to his colleagues/fans and showing those men that those values are open to them.

    I also get the feeling from this article that the author has an attitude of “this aspect of diversity isn’t important to me, so it’s not important.” That’s probably oversimplification since I’m sure her views are more nuanced, but in doing so she is perpetuating the typical binary thinking about gender and indicating that gender diversity – true gender diversity – isn’t important.